The Last Family in England: Authors Commentary
1. Choice of quotes
Quotes from David Beckham and William Shakespeare feature at the start of the novel. The David Beckham quote is a neat encapsulation of the perceived wisdom regarding the role of a husband and father. The Shakespeare quote, ‘Wisdom cries out in the street and no man regards it’, is a potential challenge to perceived wisdom and therefore provides a useful counterbalance to the Beckham quote. I also thought ‘Wisdom cries out in the street’ was fitting for a novel where dogs may have the upper hand. Or paw. The quote is from Henry IV Part One, spoken by Falstaff to Prince Hal.
Also, Beckham and Shakespeare are both very different representatives of England, so I thought it would be fun to put them side-by-side.
2. Henry IV Part One
Henry IV Part One is my favourite Shakespeare play and loosely inspired the sub-plot for The Last Family in England. In the play Prince Hal is caught between following his duty as the future King of England, represented by his father King Henry, and the world of mischief and hedonistic self-indulgence represented by Sir Jack Falstaff. So in my novel Prince faces a similar predicament, caught between his Labrador mentor Henry and the mischievous Springer spaniel Falstaff.
Incidentally, although rarely performed nowadays, Henry IV Part One (along with Part Two) was more popular than Hamlet in Shakespeare’s own time. Queen Elizabeth I so loved the character of Falstaff that she commanded Shakespeare to write a play which centred around him.
There are a number of textual references to the play. For instance, in the novel Falstaff calls Prince ‘madwag’ because of the way he wags his tail and in the Shakespeare version Falstaff greets Prince Hal by saying ‘how now you mad wag’ and always refers to him as a wag of some sort.
There were, of course, a variety of other conscious influences apparent when writing this book.
3. The spelling of ‘Family’
Readers will notice that the word family is sometimes spelt with a capital F and sometimes with a lower case f. When humans are speaking they obviously say ‘family’ and when dogs are speaking they say ‘Family’. This is because all dogs, not just Labradors, once worshipped the human family religiously. And so it is likely they would still talk of ‘Family’, just as many people in secular societies talk of ‘God’. I’ve also got Lapsang, the cat, saying ‘Family’. This is because I believe that she values the human family she lives with far more than she would have us believe.
4. The short chapters
Originally all the chapters were normal length, but then I decided to go through and chop them all up to make them shorter. The shortest chapter is the one called ‘sound’ which consists of four words, ‘There was a sound.’
You can’t beat short chapters, in my opinion, especially when they’re placed before longer chapters. They’re not only very user-friendly (especially for people who read on the tube), but they also inject pace and add atmosphere. In contemporary cinema it is a common technique to have a short shot of something before a longer scene. For instance, in Jerry Bruckheimer movies you’ll get a short flashy view of a cityscape before a long shoot-out.
Short chapters also help with pacing, and keep momentum going at the speed of a dog galloping in a park.
5. A note on Springer spaniels
Springer spaniels are presented as a corrupting influence on all dog breeds in the novel. Their belief in pleasure over duty is said to have jeopardised the security of all human families.
I would like to distance myself from the views of my narrator at this point.
I have nothing against Springer spaniels. In fact, from the age of ten to eighteen I used to live with one. His name was Murdoch (and he has a cameo role in the vet scene at the start of the novel), and I loved him very much. He may have believed in pleasure over duty (in fact, I’m pretty sure he did), but that made him all the more fun to be around.
6. A note on cats
I have nothing against cats either. The character of the cat Lapsang in the novel may do cats a disservice, but the novel is written from a Labrador’s perspective and must therefore reflect a Labrador’s prejudices.
7. A note on Labradors
Obviously, I could only guess at what prejudices a Labrador might have as I have no immediate first-hand experience of being one, contrary to the rumours.
BEHIND THE SCENES STUFF
The Last Family in England was written on a series of Wide Ruled A4 Refill Pads purchased from WH Smith, using a Papermate Flexigrip Ultra pen.
Most of the writing was done in my bed, but some of it was done in my living room. One chapter (‘chop’) was written on a GNER train travelling to my girlfriends’ parents house near Durham.
My girlfriend helped type it up onto her Packard Bell laptop, using Microsoft Windows ME software. OK, she typed the whole thing up. She is a fast-typer. I am not, even though I used to make a living with my own Internet PR firm and writing about the Internet and computers.
I listened to a variety of albums during the writing process. Including:
Stevie Wonder, Hotter than July
Missy Elliot, Miss E . . . So Addictive
Sade, Diamond Life
Ian Brown, Music of the Spheres
Marvin Gaye, What’s going on
Basement Jaxx, Rooty
Felix Da Housecat, Excursions
U2, The Best of 1990 – 2000
Dusty Springfield, Dusty
The Smiths, Best II
Red Hot Chilli Peppers, By the Way
Al Green, Al
I didn’t write while watching TV, except for two paragraphs completed during an episode of Six Feet Under. Hopefully you aren’t able to tell which two paragraphs they are.
I tried not to read too much during the months I was writing. I think they call it ‘anxiety of influence’. But anyway, I made exceptions for:
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
Stephen King, On Writing
JG Ballard, Super-Cannes
William Boyd, Any Human Heart
Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
Jon Ronson, Them
Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential
Men’s Health magazine (but only the workout sections)
The TV pages (various newspapers)
Back of toilet roll (an Andrex competition)
The food ate during this period was vegetarian, and principally from Safeway supermarket. A near-disastrous moment occurred nearly half-way through the novel when I spilt a glass of Ribena over a pad full of work. A hairdryer and some very quick-thinking on my girlfriend’s behalf saved the day.
Most days I would walk to the park with my girlfriend and test ideas out on her. She would tell me if they were crap or if they were good. If she said they were crap I would argue with her but then have to agree.
On Saturdays we went to a really tacky bar near where we live and would often row because I wanted to stay out later than her. In fact, we still do that.
Writing started in January 2002, although at that point the idea of the Labrador narrator hadn’t arrived in my head. The novel was going to be narrated by each member of the family telling their story to a silent family therapist. Writing finished in August 2002 and I congratulated all the characters and took them out for a celebratory drink (I didn’t really. I’m just trying to be all clever and postmodern).
It was then sent to the Bell Lomax literary agency, which had recently set up, and seemed to be relevant. They said they liked it and wanted to represent me. Five months later, in May 2003, I got a call from my agent to say Jonathan Cape wanted to publish TLFIE. I was in bed at the time. It felt for a few seconds like I had won Pop Idol, although Ant and Dec weren’t there to interview me, and no-one in the country knew or cared about this news.
I then went to meet my new publishers, and nearly had a panic-attack in the lift up to the seventh floor of Random House. My publisher was fantastic and very reassuring though, and told me the book would appear in May 2004. I am now in the process of working with various humans and Labradors to check that I got all the details right.